“I’m applying to college because my father will kill me if I don’t. Or he might make me get a job, which would be worse.”
College education is a huge investment.
To better understand the cost of college, you should think of college tuition as the aggregate cost of a four-year education. There is no point in thinking of the cost of college in annual terms since one year of college doesn’t do you much good. You need to earn a bachelor degree, which in most cases consists of four years. If a college charges an annual tuition of $30,000+, and $10,000 for room and board, and another $2,000 in fees, the total cost of a bachelor degree is at least $168,000. This number excludes books (which you will probably need), incidentals (like shampoo), and inevitable tuition increases.
In the end, you will probably spend at least $175,000 for a bachelor degree from a private college. It is remarkable how many people will commit to spending that much money on an education without knowing very much about the college, with little or no independent research, and with no guarantees. Imagine if you bought $150,000 worth of stock from a company without any independent analyses, without any SEC regulation, and without any recourse if you later discover that the company prospectus did not disclose the whole truth. That would be crazy, wouldn’t it?
While $168,000 is a lot to ask a middle-class family to spend on something that has no guarantees, some colleges take this responsibility seriously, but many do not. There are colleges that continue to increase tuition and then spend $50,000 buying teak trash cans at $4,000 each.(No, I am not making this up.) Colleges have raised their tuition far above inflation annually for decades – all but one private college have raised their tuition fees every year for the past four decades. Many colleges continue to raise tuition despite the fact that they do not need the money.
To make the problem worse, colleges are increasingly offering loans instead of grants to students. In 1980, loans comprised about 20% of all financial aid; now, loans comprise about 80% of all financial aid. More recently, a few colleges, such as Princeton, have decreased or eliminated loans; most or all financial need will be met with grants instead of loans. But this trend is limited to a few very wealthy colleges. More than ever, most colleges expect students to borrow money and bear the brunt of these excessive, continuous tuition increases.
Today, the total tuition+room+board costs of the most expensive private colleges are mind-boggling: Sarah Lawrence $54,410; NYU $51,991, George Washington $51,730; Bates College$51,300; Skidmore College $51,196, Johns Hopkins University $51,190, and the relative bargain Princeton University at $47,020 (making it only the 96th most expensive U.S. college).
Currently, there are over 100 colleges that have a 4-year total cost of over $200,000 – that’s just slightly under the 2010 median new home sale price of $222,600. Those $200k colleges include all the Ivies and every highly desirable private college in the country (Duke, U. Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Swarthmore).
Colleges expect you to pay a lot, and they will expect you to graduate with $20,000 (or more) in debt; you should keep these numbers in mind as you investigate colleges. Be aggressive and thorough in your research.
So colleges are wildly expensive and making an informed decision is difficult, but there are many things you can do to alleviate the cost and obtain good information.